Elementary school cafeteria worker Stacy Koltiska walked down the row of tables, cheese sandwich in hand, to a little boy about to delve into his hot chicken nuggets lunch.
Due to a new policy enacted by the Canon-McMillan School District in Pennsylvania, students whose parents owe more than $25 in fees to the school are not allowed to be served a hot lunch. Instead, the cafeteria workers were instructed to provide students from kindergarten to sixth grade with a supplementary lunch of a cheese sandwich, described by Koltiska as two slices of wheat bread with a single slice of “government cheese,” while older kids are completely refused a meal.
So Koltiska was on her way to replace a first-grade boy’s choice of lunch because in the bustle of serving all of the kids, the boy was accidentally given the wrong meal. “His eyes welled up with tears,” the lunchroom staffer recalled. “I’ll never forget his name, the look on his face.” In an interview with Action News 4, Koltiska reported that the boy brought in money the next day, most likely having talked with his parents about the encounter after school.
Koltiska resigned from her position at Wylandville Elementary School, having worked in the school district for two years, because of the incident. In her official resignation letter, Koltiska wrote, “Adopting this policy has shown this district places the bottom line as a priority over the children’s most basic needs. I can no longer be a part of it.”
Koltiska also penned an outraged Facebook post to her community explaining that not only were the kids given a less-sufficient lunch option, but the hot meals that were not served to students were simply thrown away and parents would still be charged the regular $2.05 price of lunch.
Beyond the monetary aspect, lunch is supposed to be a time for students to relax. They can let loose after hours of studies, and chat with friends while enjoying some food. “Although it was hot and hard work,” Koltiska wrote of her job in the school cafeteria, “I love the joy and excitement the younger children got from something as simple as a school lunch.” Which is why it’s disheartening to think that an administrative decision would hinder that joy.
In defense of the policy, District Superintendent Matthew Daniels told Action News 4, “There has never been the intent with the adoption of this policy to shame or embarrass a child.”
He also commented that the policy was put in place because more than 300 families owed the school between $60,000 and $100,000 annually. The policy also proved to be effective, as now only 70 families owed money, reaching a total of $20,000.
But continuing to stand up for what she believes in, Koltiska replies, “They’re suits at a board meeting. They are not the ones facing a child and looking them in the eye and taking their food away.”
Joe Zupancic, a member on the school board told The Washington Post, “We knew it would be a difficult situation,” justifying that the policy does not affect students who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. “No one wants to single out kids, least of all a school district.” But ironically, that’s exactly what the disciplinary method did.
The issue here is not that some kids have to deal with a cold cheese sandwich once in a while, it’s the blatant signifier that the child cannot afford lunch. The child is singled out, when the conflict at hand doesn’t have to do with the children, but with the parents.
There has to be a more effective way to reach the parents who owe money, rather than punishing the children. Looking around the cafeteria and seeing a contrast of hot meals versus cold ones is a visual distinction between the “rich” and the “poor,” a discrepancy that we would all hope young children would not have to deal with.
Further expressing her discontent, Koltiska tells The Washington Post of her deeper struggle with the cafeteria conflict. Growing up north of Pittsburgh, Koltiska remembers a childhood of food stamps and free lunches at school. “I know the shame I felt, and it was of no fault of my own.”
While I’m fortunate enough to not know what it’s like to worry about being fed, I can only imagine that the feeling sticks with you and that you would try everything you can to make sure it doesn’t happen to others.
“There’s enough wealth in this world that no child should go hungry, especially in school,” Koltiska said. “To me this is just wrong.”More On